FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva delivered this message to participants at the Organization's Regional Conference for Africa.
He also named water scarcity, low investment and conflict as being among the challenges to food security in the region, but said he was confident that Africa could "reach peace, stability and food security" in the future.
"The region's economic growth rate is above the global average and most of the world's fastest-growing economies are in Africa," Graziano da Silva told ministers of agriculture and funding partners at the 24-28 March event. "The challenge is to translate this growth into social inclusion. Agriculture, rural development and youth can make this happen."
The links between youth, agribusiness and rural development are high on the agenda at the conference. Africa is the world's youngest region, with more than half of the population being under 25 years of age.
"Every year, 11 million people enter (Africa's) labour market. But salaries are low in the rural sector, informality is high, agriculture is not considered as attractive by many of the region's youth, and social protection is not always available for rural families in critical situations."
A paper prepared for the conference points out that impressive growth in some African countries over the past decade has not translated into widespread employment or income for young people. FAO is calling for greater public and private investment in agribusiness, agro-industry and market-related services to attract and keep young workers, fuel job creation, and spur new development in the agricultural sector.
The Director-General noted that the African Year of Agriculture and Food Security was being observed alongside the International Year of Family Farming, calling on African countries to "use this opportunity to put small farmers, fishers, pastoralists, forest collectors and traditional and indigenous communities at the center of our agenda."
"Let me emphasize that to achieve food security we need to combine the sustainable increase of production and social protection to provide a cushion for the most vulnerable," pointing out that some 90 percent of rural African households are engaged in farming-related activities.
Regional Priorities and Partnerships
Graziano da Silva said the region had taken an important step to strengthening agriculture with the establishment of the Africa Solidarity Trust Fund. The Fund, fully financed by African countries, is housed at FAO, but co-led with the African Union, and developed in keeping with priorities laid down by the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP).
Later in the week, the Director-General is expected to sign agreements releasing the first packages of funding to six countries for programmes and action plans supported under the Trust Fund (Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mali, Niger and South Sudan). FAO has also supported countries in developing proposals for other sources of funding, including the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP), which has benefitted 15 African countries with a combined total of more than $560 million.
The FAO chief also stressed the importance of partnerships combining the efforts of governments, private sector companies and civil society in accessing financial services and other support for farmers.
In his address, the Director-General also gave an overview of a process of transformational changes taking place within FAO and its benefits for Africa, including an increase in its technical presence in offices throughout the region.
FAO has three regional initiatives aligned with the renewed strategic framework, which respond to priorities identified by Member countries and which are in different stages of implementation: support to the renewed efforts and approaches to end hunger by 2025; promoting the sustainable intensification of agricultural production and commercialization; and, building resilience in the drylands of Africa with a special focus in the Sahel, Horn of Africa and flood-prone countries.
Around 60 developing countries worldwide have already met a hunger-reduction target outlined by Millennium Development Goal number one, to halve the proportion of chronically hungry people between 1990 and 2015.
In Africa, the countries include: Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Djibouti, Libya, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Sao Tome and Principe, South Africa, Togo and Tunisia.